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Do You Have To Wear a LIfe Jacket On A Boat? Know The Law

do_you_have_to_wear_life_jacket_boatOne of the most common questions asked about boater safety is whether or not you have to wear a life jacket on a boat, and what, exactly, qualifies as a boat. Does a kayak count? What about a 20 foot skiff?

In this post I’ll address these questions, as well as present why you should always wear a life jacket.

Do You Have to Wear a Life Jacket on a Boat?

The short answer: no.

All boats, commercial and recreational, are required to carry one USCG approved life jacket on board for every passenger, but passengers are not required by law to wear them.

Life jackets are required to be sized correctly for each passenger which means that simply carrying a few large inflatable life vests on board will not meet the requirements if there are children or small passengers on board as well. Remember that inflatable life jackets are not approved for children under 16.

Boats over 20 ft (note: this length may vary by state) must also carry a throwable flotation device within arms reach of the cockpit.

What About Kayaks, Canoes, and Other Small Craft?

The statement above applied to all craft, regardless of size or position (inland vs. offshore) in the water.

Kayaks and canoes are required to carry life preservers on board for every passenger, and these life jackets must be easily accessible.

You Aren’t Required To Wear a Life Jacket, but You Should

Just because the law does not require you to wear a life jacket while on board a boat does not mean that you should forget about wearing one.

In recent years the Coast Guard has run a major campaign to try to increase awareness about wearing life jackets. In the event that someone is knocked overboard, a life vest can only function if the person is actually wearing it!

You can read more on some surprising accident statistics here.

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Why Having a Comfortable Life Vest Is Important

comfortable_life_vestThere are a lot of factors to consider when choosing a new life preserver, but one of the most important features if whether or not a life jacket is comfortable.

In this post I’ll outline why buying a comfortable life vest is one the most important purchases you can make for your boat.

Comfortable Life Vests Are Worn More Frequently

Life jackets are only effective when they’re worn.

Choosing a comfortable life vest will determine how effective the vest is for you, because it will be a major factor in how often you wear the vest.

In recent years the US Coast Guard has run several major campaigns to encourage boaters to wear their life vests, not simply stow them below deck.

In the moments that matter, having a PFD “readily stowed” might not be enough. Even if you’re a strong swimmer, going overboard can be traumatic: you might be knocked unconscious or have the wind knocked out of you. That means that wearing your life vest is extremely important.

You’re far more likely to be wearing your vest if it is comfortable and provides you a full range of motion than if it is bulky, heavy, uncomfortable, or otherwise restrictive.

Comfortable Life Jackets Can Be Worn Longer

Unfortunately, in order to wear your PFD in the moments that count, you need to wear it all the time. This means that you will be getting very familiar with your vest, and need to be able to wear it comfortably for several hours straight.

If you’re going to be out on the water all day, you’re going to want the life vest to feel like any other piece of clothing.

Inflatable life jackets are an excellent option for full-day comfort, since they take up far less space and allow for greater agility than their foam counterparts.

Another option is to have multiple life jackets available. There are a number of close-fitted vests that can be worn like a t-shirt and allow for full athletic movement. While these vests are not always USCG approved, it can be a good intermediary option that provides some daily protection while keeping a USCG vest readily stowed.

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Budget Life Jackets vs. Premium Life Jackets: 3 Reasons to Splurge

budget_premium_jacket_decisionBoating is expensive. Anyone who’s ever owned a boat knows the frustrations with how simple costs quickly add up, and it’s natural to want to look for ways to save money on your boat.

Safety is not one of them!

There are a wide range of both budget life jackets and premium life jackets on the market, and the reasons why splurging for that better vest aren’t always obvious.

In this post I’ll look at 3 reasons why you should consider investing in a high quality vest instead of a budget option.

Life Jackets Last for Years

Both types of life jackets, budget and premium alike, are designed for the long term. Purchasing a life jacket is an important decision, since it is likely something you will have on your boat for quite some time.

Because they are long lasting, that also means it’s easier to justify a higher expense upfront in order to reap the benefits of the vest for years to come. Think about how many hours you will be spending on your boat in the next 5, 8, or even 10 years.

Is that time you’d rather spend with a budget vest, or a top-of-the-line model?

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Premium Life Jackets Are More Comfortable

Since you’re going to be using your vest for such a long time, it’s important to note that there is an extreme difference in the comfort level of budget and premium life jackets.

Budget life vests tend to be made of a bulky foam and thin fabric. They get wet easily and don’t shirk the water which means they’re going to be heavier and more restrictive than the higher-end models.

This discomfort also means that you’re less likely to wear the PFD, which is the worst thing you can do for your safety.

Remember, PFDs only work if you wear them.

Wider Range of Choices of Premium Brands

Finally, there is a much wider range of choices for premium life jackets, in terms of brand, design, fashion, and style.

Budget life jackets, while functional, all tend to be fairly similar. Premium vests on the other hand, provide many more options that can meet your specific need, including automatic and manual inflatable vests, belt-vests, ultra-lite vests, and fitted, neoprene vests.

If the cost of outfitting your boat with multiple premium vests is prohibitive, consider purchasing a top of the line vest for you and your partner only, while keeping a handful of lower cost solutions on board for guests and other passengers.

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How to Measure Life Vest Fit

measure_life_jacket_fitRegardless of whether you’ve never bought a life jacket before or if you’ve been around the water for years, it can sometimes be difficult to grasp how to measure life jacket fit, and determine if your life jacket is the size you should have.

Here are a few tips to measure life jacket fit, as recommended by the US Coast Guard.

Testing Life Vests in the Water

The Coast Guard’s primary recommendation for trying on life jackets is to do an in water test, as it is the easiest and most effective way to ensure that a life jacket is functioning properly for the individual.

When in the water, the life jacket is too big if the vest rises above your head or around your face.

The vest is too small if you are unable to float while wearing the vest.

The USCG recommends testing all life jackets in shallow water before proceeding out in a vessel.

Tips for Dry Fitting Life Jackets

Unfortunately, it’s not always practical to test out your life jacket while in the water. If you’re on land, try the following tips:

  1. Before you try the vest on, check the manufacturer statement about the intended size and weight of the wearer. This number will usually be a modest range, so it’s an important first step.
  2. When trying on the life jacket, zip all zippers and clasp all straps. You want the jacket to hug your chest tightly.
  3. Raise your hands and arms above your head and have another person pull up on both sides of the life jacket’s arm openings simultaneously.
  4. If the life vest rises up over your head, or even as high as your chin, this is an indications that the vest is too large.

Fortunately, most life jackets are sized according to a range of sizes, so it isn’t always essential to try the vest on individually. If purchasing a life vest online, your best clue to measure life jacket fit is to consider the size and weight recommendations provided by the manufacturer.

Once you receive your life jacket, be sure to try it on before heading out on the water with it. In the event that the life vest does not fit well, most online suppliers have excellent return policies, so you can exchange it for a better size.

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Pros and Cons of an Inflatable Belt PFD

inflatable_belt_pfdThe Inflatable Belt PFD is one of the more popular types of life preservers. Like other inflatable vests it is easy to wear and can be worn without encumbering the person involved. Unlike the over the should life jackets, however, the belt packs can be more easily adjusted for different sizes of person.

Here are a few pros and cons of this type of life vest.

Benefits of the Inflatable Belt PFD

Automatically Inflates. The belt packs approved by the USCG have both automatic and manually inflation capabilities. The pack inflates upon contact with water, or via a user-accessible cord.

Unobtrusive. Perhaps the primary reason why this life pack has gained popularity, the inflatable belt packs are extremely easy to wear and stay out of the way of the individual. This allows for greater maneuverability around the boat, a big plus for many.

Negatives of the Inflatable Belt PFD

Unfortunately, this type of life vest also has a few drawbacks.

Manually Re-position After Inflation. Unlike other inflatable life vests, the belt packs need to be manually placed over the individuals head after inflation. This means that the individual is usually already in the water, which makes placement slightly more complicated, and is not recommended for non-swimmers.

Not for Wet Sports. Belt Packs (and other auto inflatable vests) are not recommended for sports where immersion is likely, such as white water rafting or water skiing.

Not for Children. Like other inflatable vests, these units are not recommended for children under 16 years of age.

Recommendations and Best Uses

Inflatable belts tend to be best used in calm and inland water systems, and are usually designed for low impact paddle sports where serious injury is unlikely.

The primary example of infltable belt use is with stand up paddleboarding (SUP), though the belts can also be used with a range of other sports like kayaking, canoeing, or small craft fishing. Each of these activities is a low-risk sport, in which any submersion event, like falling off the paddleboard, for example, is unlikely to be accompanied by major injury.

Inflatable belts PFDs are not recommend for inland or offshore boating.

Inflatable Belt Pack Demonstration Video

Watch the video below, provided by MTI Adventurewear, for a demonstration of how to properly use an inflatable belt PFD.

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Auto Inflatable Life Vest vs. Manual Inflatable Life Vest: What to Know

manual_inflatable_life_vestIf you’re in the market for an inflatable life vest, one of the first decisions you’ll have to make is whether to purchase an auto inflatable life or a manual inflatable life vest.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both, and which type is right for you is going to depend on how you anticipate using the vest.

Auto Inflatable Life Vest

Automatic life vests have gained a lot of popularity over the last few years. They’re small and thin, making them far less obtrusive and more comfortable for the wearer than traditional vests.

One of the main selling points is that auto inflatables vests provide you comfort without worrying about the vest functioning if you are unable to inflate it yourself. One example of this might be a situation where one is knocked unconscious, or even just has the wind knocked out of them for an instant. The auto-inflation could save your life, and are even able to turn an unconscious individual face up in the water.

The downside of the auto inflatable life jackets is that they do require some level of maintenance. While not excessive, the maintenance requirements vary from brand to brand are basically a check-up to ensure the vest still functions properly.

Additionally, automatic life jackets are not recommended for children under 16, non-swimmers, or any situation where falling in the water is probable. This may include but is not limited to standup paddle boarding, kayaking, waterskiing, jet skiing, or whitewater rafting.

Manual Inflatable Life Vest

The manual inflatable life vest is a popular alternative to the auto inflatable option. The vests come with an easily accessible cord that inflates the vest when pulled.

Like the auto inflatable vests, these life jackets are comfortable and unobtrusive for the wearer and can turn an unconscious individual face up in the water.

The downside of these vests is that they do require manual activation. While this is fine for the overwhelming majority of scenarios, it does not account for a situation in which an individual is unable to pull his own cord.

Manual Inflatable life vests are not recommended for children under 16 or for individuals who cannot swim.

Both Manual Inflatable Life Vests and Automatic Inflatable Life Vests can be excellent options for you or your loved ones. It is important to weight the pros and cons of each before you decide which type of vest is right for you.

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Why Reviews Emphasize Life Jacket Comfort More Than Security

life_jacket_comfortMany boaters are shocked when they read life jacket reviews that center around the vest’s comfort, style, and fashion rather than the USCG rating and safety features.

Wouldn’t one expect that a life jacket’s safety qualifications should be the number one priority when choosing a new vest?

Obviously, the safety rating is immensely important, and the entire reason you’re purchasing a life jacket in the first place, but it’s not necessarily what’s going to make a vest stand out.

Here’s why life jacket comfort is important.

The USCG Approval is a Prerequisite

The reason that a life jacket’s safety and security features aren’t always prominent in the marketing material is because the fact that the vest is safe is virtually a prerequisite.

In order to comply with boating laws, all recreational and commercial vessels must have at least one USCG approved life jacket on board for every passenger and crew member.

This requirement means that the overwhelming majority of life vests are USCG approved, and “bragging” about this fact in marketing materials and reviews doesn’t do much good, because it isn’t anything unique or special about that product.

With fashion and comfort, however, there’s far more room for the company to be creative, and develop a product that is going to stand out among the competition.

The USCG Standard Says It All

A second reason the safety aspects and technology aren’t always prominent, is because getting USCG approval sums up the features of the vest.

The Coast Guard has a detailed Type system for approved vests, so any life jacket will say not only whether it is USCG approved, but what type level it is approved for, and what the appropriate recommendation is.

As long as you’re looking at a vest that fits these requirements, the rest is just details. There is no such standard for a vest’s comfort, so in order to stand out, the product description needs to emphasize the style and material used in the design.

Comfort Encourages Use

Finally, perhaps the most important reason that many life jacket reviews stress comfort over safety is because comfort encourages use.

If the vest isn’t comfortable, boaters are less likely to wear it, which has a negative impact on their overall safety. Having “the safest” vest does you know good if it’s stowed in the cabin and you fall into the water.

Any life vest that is worn consistently is better than the one that is never worn.

That’s why at the end of the day, comfort is going to be more important than ultra-security, and many reviews address it as such.

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The Surprising Boating Fatality Statistics Most Boaters Don’t Know

boating_fatality_statisticsRecreational boating is, overall, an extremely safe activity, but only if all skippers, crew, and passengers follow safe practices.

One of the major problems with boating safety is education. The accessibility of recreational boating outlets and ease of renting or buying a boat means that many people are simply unaware of some basic safety practices that everyone should employ.

3 Boating Fatality Statistics You Can’t Ignore

  1. 50% of boating fatalities happen in calm water.
  2. Most fatalities occur close to shore, where boaters feel safer.
  3. The majority of fatalities are a result of a person drowning without wearing a life vest. Usually, the life jacket is available on board, but the individual chose not to wear it.

What These Statistics Mean For You

These are scary numbers that no one should ignore. They point out a couple of main boats about the lack of education and preparedness among boaters.

Consider the following implications:

  • Accidents happen when boaters are least expecting it.
  • Accidents happen because boaters are unprepared for the accident.
  • Solutions can be close at hand, but ineffective if not implemented.
  • Being a good swimmer is no excuse for not wearing a life jacket.
  • Having experience is no excuse for not wearing a life jacket.

So what should you do?

Following a simple set of rules and regulations can greatly reduce your chance of having a catastrophic accident.

For starters, skippers should maintain awareness at all time, and neither captains nor their crew should consume alcoholic beverages while on the water. It is illegal to be at the helm of a boat while intoxicated!

The second easily implemented recommendation is to find a coast guard approved life jacket and wear it whenever you’re on the water.

In many accident cases, approved life jackets were on board and properly stowed, but were not accessed or thrown to the injured person in time to prevent serious injury and death.

Read more on how to find an appropriate life vest for you.

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US Coast Guard Life Jacket Regulations

us_coast_guard_life_jacket_regulationsBefore you go out on the water, it’s important to know the US Coast Guard life jacket regulations for the area where you are. The good news is that most states have similar laws, and there are federal minimum requirements that apply across the country.

The United States Coast Guard provides comprehensive information and recommendations on life vests and other PFDs, but it can be difficult to sort out the laws from the suggestions.

Here is a brief overview of the laws you need to know.

US Coast Guard Life Jacket Regulations

All boats, whether recreational or commercial need to have at least one USCG approved life jacket on board for every passenger.

Each life jack must meet the following requirements:

  • The lifejacket must meet USCG standard and be coast guard approved.
  • The life jacket must be the correct size for the individual.
  • The life jacket must be stowed in a convenient location and easily accessible.
  • The life jacket must be in good and functioning condition.
  • If there are children on board, any child less than 13 years of age is required to wear a life jacket when on deck.

It is recommended, but not required that all individuals where life jackets whenever they are maneuvering on deck.

For the purposes of this recommendation, “maneuvering on deck” refers to any individual who is not in a cabin or other enclosed area and is not secured to the vessel via an attached life line. This includes individuals who are seated in the cockpit, or other ‘safe’ zone of the vessel.

It is important to note that the regulations listed above are the federal minimum regulations. Individual states may require additional restrictions. For example, some states may have additional age or accessibility requirements.

Wearing a life vest or other type of PFD is always a good idea when you’re on the water, regardless of whether you’re kayaking, sailing, fishing, or on a cruise.

The overwhelming majority of boat accidents and boating fatalities occur when the captain, crew, and passengers are least expecting it. This includes accidents in near shore or calm waters.

See this article on surprising boating fatality statistics for more information.